On the long voyage of life, there are times when the sun shines with the warmth and brightness of a spring day. There are other times, like bitter winter nights, when we must battle the freezing cold. Periods of hardship, we might say, are the winter nights of life.
Some people encounter their worst hardships during their youth and then, having successfully overcome them, go on to live in relative ease and happiness for the rest of their days. There are others who succeed in avoiding hardship during their youth, only to have it descend upon them in old age.
In my case, I tried to experience what hardships I could in my youth, hoping that in the process of overcoming them I could build a firm foundation for later life. Not that I had the slightest intention of going out of my way to invite unusual hardship or to be anything more than an ordinary human being. In fact, I realize that there are untold numbers who have struggled, and continue to struggle, against far greater difficulties than I have.
But because I had my share of sickness and poverty and other such worries, I can now in full measure sympathize with others who are sick or troubled. It is something I am deeply thankful for.
The spirit of Walt Whitman was that the more one has shivered in the cold, the better one can appreciate the warmth of the sun; the more troubles one has experienced in the world, the better one can understand the true value of human life. Indeed, winter never lasts forever. After the bitter struggles of winter is bound to come the sunshine of spring.
The important thing is never to give in to hardship. In times of trial, one must learn to endure whatever may come and thereby strengthen and improve oneself. After all, it is only the person who has experienced the cold of winter who can savor and enjoy fully the warm sunshine of spring.
“The star that governs your destiny is in your own heart,” another poet has said. There can be no doubt about it. Whatever one’s circumstances, whatever one’s past, the star of destiny, the forces that determine one’s future, are nowhere but in one’s own heart and mind.
Regardless of what storms may blow, what angry waves may threaten, you must keep shining at all times with a pure, steady light. This is what I want to say to all the young people of today who are undergoing hardship, for depending on how you bear up under that hardship, the trials of today could turn out to be your most precious possessions.
In my family, I had four elder brothers. Since all four were called into military service during World War II, I was left with many of the tasks and responsibilities that under ordinary circumstances would have been theirs. Our house was burned down in air raids, and though my parents both worked as hard as they could and tried not to burden their children, I naturally had to look out to some extent for my younger brothers and my little sister.
Moreover, I was at that time suffering from tuberculosis, and much of my strength was consumed simply in battling the disease. In any ordinary Japanese family today, a person in the condition I was in would as a matter of course be sent to a sanatorium for an extended period of treatment and rest. But in the years I am speaking about, toward the end of the war and just after it, such a step was out of the question.
Every day was a struggle for me. Toward evening, the low fever symptomatic of the disease would invariably come on. Then there was the cough, which never let up. How many times, even after I had gone to bed, it persisted, tormenting me so that I could hardly get to sleep.
Most crucial is our determination to continue to believe in the limitless dignity and possibilities of both ourselves and others.
The doctor at one point said I would probably not last much past 23 or 24. After I went to work at the company my mentor, Josei Toda, owned, my health continued to be a constant source of worry for him, and he on one occasion confided to my parents that he did not think I would live to see 30. But I kept on day after day doing the best I could to carry out my job, strenuous though it was. I don’t mean by this to sound as though I am advising people to do anything foolish or to deliberately put an undue strain on their health. But as I look back at my own case, I have a feeling that if I hadn’t had the daily challenge of my job before me, my body might well have succumbed to the disease. Because I knew that I had a job to do, both my body and my spirit rose to the challenge. Eventually, I regained my health.
As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “While there’s life there’s hope.” There were many times when my condition was so bad that I lost all courage and was on the point of resigning myself to death. But I would say to myself, “I’m still alive, which means there is still hope.” I would resolve to go on fighting.
I know there must be any number of people in the world today much sicker than I ever was. I would appeal to such people to face their trials with a firm, undespairing heart and to never surrender in their battle with disease. And this applies not only to disease: No matter what kind of difficult situations one finds oneself in, some opportunity, some opening, can always be found to fight one’s way out. The important thing is always to have hope and to face the future bravely.
I went to work for Toda in January 1949, when I was 21. My job was editing a magazine, and for someone in my physical condition, it was hard work. But, as I have already said, the fact that I had the work to challenge me each day turned out in fact to be a blessing.
I was also receiving intensive instruction and training from Toda in a number of different subjects. Sometimes I would find myself being scolded by him with a fury like that of a hundred thunderbolts striking all at once, while at other times he would show me infinite gentleness and patience. I never had the slightest doubt that at heart he had deep faith in me and that behind the scolding was his loving concern and desire to make me into a person of real worth, capable of doing any kind of work. For this reason, it was a boundless joy to work for him, and I never for a moment thought of giving up.
A truly warm human relationship—how much in the way of hope and courage and conviction it is capable of giving! It is not too much to say that, in the end, everything I have today I owe to the fact that I encountered such a great teacher, one who was willing to trust me without question. To be looked upon as trustworthy and reliable is surely one of the most valuable assets a person can have, regardless of occupation. And for a young person, to be trusted at work is of prime importance. If a young person does not learn to inspire trust in others, failure is almost certain.
At present, they say, we are living in an age of irresponsibility. There is a tendency for people not only to disregard but to be completely indifferent to the trust that others put in them. But so long as human society exists, it is patent that trustworthiness will continue to be of basic importance. Anyone who betrays this trust will become a social outcast, eventually having to taste the bitterness of defeat. Today, one may smugly flaunt an irresponsible manner; in the end, nothing but grief will result.
I believe it was the Japanese novelist Saneatsu Mushanokoji who said, “One word from a person who is qualified to be trusted carries more weight than ten thousand words from someone who is not.” Trust is hard to build up and easy to destroy. Trust that one has spent ten years in nurturing can be wiped out in an instant by some little slipup in word or action.
A pretentious, overconfident manner that tries to hide one’s lack of real ability will quickly be exposed when a time of crisis arises. Those who work with all their might to carry out their mission will in the end win the trust of those around them. The type of person I most respect is one who, though he or she may be doing a rather inconspicuous, unexciting job, still does it conscientiously, advancing step by step and patiently working toward self-improvement.
When I speak of the importance of inspiring trust, I certainly do not mean that one should be constantly choosing the safest course and trying to succeed at all costs. For a young person, this is a fatal error. On the contrary, the mistakes of one’s youth are often far more important than we could ever guess in helping to build one’s foundation for the future. Therefore, I hope to see young people do each day’s work with courage, aware that they still have much to learn but determined to do their best. The Irish novelist Oliver Goldsmith wrote, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
I have forgotten the author, but the following words also come to mind, words that have always moved me deeply: “Failure—what is failure? Is it not a constant occurrence in the world? And is it not the ladder to great accomplishment? Because of it, we gain a kind of experience that we could never acquire from ten thousand books. . . . Failure is the means by which Heaven bestows happiness upon us. In truth, it is the greatest treasure of life.”
To lose heart just because of one or two failures is the height of foolishness. Life is a long, long journey. No matter how wonderful a life you have lived, if in the end you find yourself defeated and unhappy, nothing could be more miserable.
In youth, one should go forward with courage, understanding that the more often one fails, the firmer will be the foundation for one’s future life and happiness. It is also necessary for young people to have the fearlessness to recognize their failures as failures and honestly take responsibility for them. This kind of attitude I find most admirable in young people. Above all, one must avoid the opposite tendency, refusing to recognize one’s responsibility and like a coward trying to shift the blame to others.
Finally, one must have the breadth of mind to consider the source of one’s failures and in a cool, objective manner to judge how and where one went wrong. For such judgment will serve as the source of future value.
The sight of a young person striving to reach the goal he or she has set is one of the most powerful, most refreshing, most beautiful things in the world. Nowhere in the world is there a beauty to match that of a young person who has fought with and overcome hardship.
Looking at the world today, it is easy to feel despair. A kind of powerlessness seems to be the prevailing mood. Decisions about important issues all seem to be made somewhere beyond our reach. What can one person accomplish in the face of the vast forces that run our world? The current of the times can seem so fast-flowing and complex as to be overwhelming.
I do not believe that people are powerless. The philosophical tradition that I embrace teaches concerning the most fundamental dimension—that of life itself—that each human life partakes of the limitless life force of the cosmos. The same power that moves the universe exists within our lives. Each individual has immense potential, and a great change in the inner dimension of one individual’s life has the power to touch others’ lives and transform society. Everything begins with us. As Nigerian author and poet Ben Okri wrote in his poem “Mental Fight”:
You can’t remake the world
Without remaking yourself.
Each new era begins within.
It is an inward event,
With unsuspected possibilities
For inner liberation.
The term my mentor, Josei Toda, used for this process of inner transformation that also transforms our surroundings was human revolution. And I believe it is the most fundamental, most vital of all revolutions. It can create changes that are more lasting and valuable than political, economic, or technological revolutions. For no matter how external factors change, the world will never get better as long as people remain selfish and apathetic.
An inner change for the better in a single person—one person becoming wiser, stronger, more compassionate—is the essential first turn of the wheel toward realizing peaceful coexistence and fulfillment for the whole human race. I firmly believe that a great human revolution in just one person can be the start of a transformation in the destiny of whole societies and all humankind. And for the individual, everything starts in the inner reaches of life itself.
When we change our inner determination, everything begins to move in a new direction. The moment we make a powerful resolve, every nerve and fiber in our being will immediately orient itself toward the fulfillment of this goal or desire. On the other hand, if we think, “This is never going to work out,” then every cell in our body will be deflated and give up the fight.
Hope, in this sense, is a decision. It is the most important decision we can make. Hope changes everything, starting with our lives. Hope is the force that enables us to take action to make our dreams come true. It has the power to change winter into summer, barrenness to creativity, agony to joy. As long as we have hope, there is nothing we cannot achieve. When we possess the treasure of hope, we can draw forth our inner potential and strength. A person of hope can always advance.
Hope is a flame that we nurture within our hearts. It may be sparked by someone else—by the encouraging words of a friend, relative, or mentor—but it must be fanned and kept burning through our own determination. Most crucial is our determination to continue to believe in the limitless dignity and possibilities of both ourselves and others.
Mahatma Gandhi led the nonviolent struggle for Indian independence from British colonial rule, succeeding against all odds. He was, in his own words, an “irrepressible optimist.” His hope was not based on circumstances, rising and falling as things seemed to be getting better or worse. Rather, it was based on an unshakable faith in humanity, in the capacity of people for good. He absolutely refused to abandon his faith in his fellow human beings.
Keeping faith in people’s essential goodness, and the consistent effort to cultivate goodness in ourselves: these are the twin keys, as Gandhi proved, to unleashing the great power of hope. Believing in ourselves and in others in this way— continuing to wage the difficult inner struggle to make this the basis for our actions—can transform a society that sometimes seems to be plummeting toward darkness into a humane, enlightened world, where all people are treated with respect.
There may be times when, confronted by cruel reality, we verge on losing all hope. If we cannot feel hope, it is time to create some. We can do this by digging deeper within, searching for even a small glimmer of light, for the possibility of a way to begin to break through the impasse before us.
And our capacity for hope can actually be expanded and strengthened by difficult circumstances. Hope that has not been tested is nothing more than a fragile dream. Hope begins from this challenge, this effort to strive toward an ideal, however distant it may seem.
It is far better to pursue a remote, even seemingly impossible goal than to cheat ourselves of the forward motion that such goals can provide. I believe that the ultimate tragedy in life is not physical death. Rather, it is the spiritual death of losing hope, giving up on our own possibilities for growth.
Toda once wrote:
In looking at great people of the past, we find that they remained undefeated by life’s hardships, by life’s pounding waves. They held fast to hopes that seemed mere fantastic dreams to other people. They let nothing stop or discourage them from realizing their aspirations. The reason for this, I feel certain, is that their hopes themselves were not directed toward the fulfillment of personal desires of self-interest but based on a wish for all people’s happiness, and this filled them with extraordinary conviction and confidence.
Here he pointed to a crucially important truth: real hope is found in committing ourselves to vast goals and dreams— dreams such as a world without war and violence, a world where everyone can live in dignity.
The problems that face our world are daunting in their depth and complexity. Sometimes it may be hard to see where—or how—to begin. But we cannot be paralyzed by despair. We must each take action toward the goals we have set and in which we believe. Rather than passively accepting things as they are, we must embark on the challenge of creating a new reality. It is in this effort that true, undying hope is to be found.
From Hope Is a Decision: Selected Essays of Daisaku Ikeda. Published with permission of Middleway Press, © 2017 Soka Gakkai.
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